OGDEN PHIPPS HANDICAP | PURSE: $250,000 | GRADE: 1 | 3-YEAR-OLDS AND UP | 1 1/16 MILES
ELMONT, N.Y. -- Awesome Maria continued her ascent up the ladder in the extremely deep older filly and mare division with a three-length victory over Payton d'Oro in Saturday's Grade 1, $250,000 Ogden Phipps Handicap at Belmont Park.
Pletcher also finished third and fourth with Super Espresso and Life At Ten, the defending Phipps winner. Absinthe Minded finished last.
Unrivaled Belle, the morning-line 2-1 second choice in the Phipps, was scratched from the race in the paddock after she flipped over while waiting to be saddled. Trainer Bill Mott said Unrivaled Belle broke her withers, but the mare was able to be walked back to the barn by her handlers.
About an hour after the Phipps, Mott announced that Unrivaled Belle would be retired.
Awesome Maria won for the fourth time in as many starts this year, adding the Phipps to her victories in the Sabin and Rampart -- both Grade 3 events at Gulfstream Park -- and the Grade 2 Shuvee Handicap here last month. She won Saturday while carrying 124 pounds, spotting those who ran seven and eight pounds. She also would have spotted two pounds to Unrivaled Belle.
"It was very important for her to get that Grade 1 win," said winning trainer Todd Pletcher, who arrived back in the United States from England at 1 a.m. Saturday. "She did it while conceding a lot of weight to some very good fillies, so that was a big effort for her."
Awesome Maria, who wears a blanket into the starting gate so that she doesn't feel the metal gate against her hind end, didn't break that sharply under John Velazquez. But she quickly recovered and found herself stalking Absinthe Minded through a quarter in 23.05 seconds and a half-mile in 45.50.
Awesome Maria poked her head in front at the three-eighths pole and turned back Life At Ten approaching the quarter pole. Awesome Maria opened up a three-length advantage at the eighth pole and won by that margin as Payton d'Oro, under Gabriel Saez, made a wide but futile chase in the stretch.
Awesome Maria, a daughter of Maria's Mon owned and bred by Joyce Robsham, covered the 1 1/16 miles in 1:41.40 and returned $3.30 as the 3-5 favorite.
"She didn't break as good as I'd like," said Velazquez, who got off Life At Ten to ride Awesome Maria. "Once I got her into gear, she was going comfortably the whole way around, really, really nice actually. We were going a quick pace, but she was doing it easy. It felt like she was going comfortable. Coming to the quarter pole, I got after her and made her switch leads and at the three-sixteenths pole, she had another gear."
Said Pletcher: "I think she was impressive again. She's been pretty impressive every start this year."
Conversely, Life At Ten, last year's Phipps and Beldame winner, turned in another clunker, finishing fourth, beaten 6 1/2 lengths. She broke sharply, but was quickly taken off the pace by Cornelio Velasquez as per the original game plan.
"We felt like on paper that Absinthe Minded and Awesome Maria were going to be laying one-two and Life At Ten would assume that garden spot," Pletcher said. "The way it broke, Cornelio had to grab her a little bit to get that spot. Maybe in retrospect he would have been better-suited to go on, but he tried to execute the original game plan."
Pletcher said he would likely keep Awesome Maria at races 1 1/8 miles or shorter and mentioned the Grade 1 Ruffian, a 1 1/8-mile race at Saratoga on July 31 as a potential spot, depending on weight assignment.
"I thought it was borderline fair when you're carrying 124 [pounds] and spotting the Breeders' Cup winner two pounds," Pletcher said. "I don't know that we'll accept another increase in the weights. If that's the case, we might look somewhere else."